Brow Beat

How TV Shows Are Tricking You Into Watching Ads

Jon Tenney, Kyra Sedgwick, and Phillip P. Keene in The Closer.

Publicity still © TNT. All Rights Reserved.

Alyssa Rosenberg has an interesting post on her ThinkProgress blog this morning, about a report that shows fewer DVR viewers are fast-forwarding through ad breaks. According to Deadline, “The percentage of broadcast commercials skipped by DVR users dropped to 46.7% in the 2011/2012 season from 58.8% in 2007/2008. For cable, 50.4% of the ads were skipped this past season vs. 52.8% in 2007/2008.” Rosenberg wonders if TV viewers are actively choosing to watch more ads as a way to support the shows they care about—though she admits it might just reflect their growing laziness.

I have another theory: I’ve been an devoted TiVo user for more than a decade, and my fast-forwarding habits haven’t changed a bit. But I am watching more commercials these days—because advertisers are using low-down, sneaky ploys to trick me into it.

Take, for instance, this week’s Drop Dead Diva. In the middle of the episode, as I reached for the remote when the commercials started up, Stacy (April Bowlby)—the lead character’s best friend—suddenly appeared. Had I misread the cue that signals the arrival of an ad break? I had to pause to find out. In fact, it was a scene that showed Stacy, in character, filming a commercial in which her male co-star can’t deliver his lines because her hair smells so good. (Until this season, Stacy was an aspiring actress who often filmed commercials.) The tag line, “Get to the essence of your inner diva. Keep watching Drop Dead Diva, brought to you by Herbal Essences,” was clearly tailored to the show, and it was followed by a more standard Herbal Essences ad.

TNT is a long-time abuser of this type of sneaky interstitial spot. In The Closer, Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick) has a sweet tooth; after she nails a confession, she often retires to her office to enjoy a Ding Dong or similar treat. For a while, Brenda’s junk food habits were commemorated by trompe l’oeil Closer-specific spots in which a young couple apparently watching The Closer would exchange sexy banter linking Brenda with Kit Kats or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Their scene would be followed by a more conventional Hershey’s ad.

This season, several TNT shows are using a different style of interstitial. At the end of a segment of The Closer, the next shot shows a voluminous purse of the kind favored by Brenda Leigh Johnson. The camera pans around discarded candy wrappers until it lights upon a handwritten note, “Need the energy to grind out one more confession? Go nuts,” and then moves on to a PayDay bar. Then it cuts to a PayDay commercial. (And you’ll never guess what a guy on a stakeout is shown munching on a little later in the show. That’s right, a PayDay bar.)

Whether it’s the Drop Dead Diva ad featuring a character from the show, or the TNT interstitials that appear to contain a written clue, these fake-outs cause the fast-forwarding viewer to pause to figure out if what’s flashing by is content or commerce. It’s annoying, but it’s good advertising. Not only did I watch those spots, I even remember the names of the sponsors.

I support these new counterattacks against the DVR—if the greater evil of product placement is the only alternative. Just look at what’s happened to Rizzoli & Isles, which, in Season 3, has turned TNT into a branch of the Home Shopping Network—inserting endorsements for Dr. Scholl’s gel inserts (complete with characters giving each other tips on how to wear high heels) and Toyota Camrys into the middle of a murder mystery. Stuffing a chocolate bar into a character’s mouth, as The Closer did this week, is relatively harmless, since it’s easily ignorable, but wasting precious lines of dialogue to talk about “voice-activated Bing search capabilities” is tantamount to admitting that the show is a silly second-tier also-ran with a very short shelf life.

Rizzoli & Isles has shown that it’s self-conscious about the cost of this kind of whorishness. This week Angela Rizzoli (Lorraine Bracco), who frequently delivers the show’s sales pitches, announced that she’d been given a free car by Can’o Espress’o, because she was their salesperson of the month. (This is odd, since she is the second-in-command at a police station cafeteria, but whatever.) “They just gave this to you?” her son Frankie asked when Angie showed off the car. “I had to do a little promotion,” she admitted, as the camera revealed a giant company logo painted on the vehicle and a giant can affixed to its roof.